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If Proposition 32 Passes: A Not-So-Green Golden State




How different would California look with Proposition 32’s passage? To imagine, it’s not necessary to focus on a Golden State without the legacy of its unions, but rather to think of a California in which only the rich and powerful have a say in Sacramento and in the polling booth.

“It will have a devastating effect,” says John Logan, director of Labor Studies at San Francisco State University, of Prop. 32’s impact. “California would be transformed as a state.”

On environmental issues alone, Prop. 32 stands to roll back decades of progress in making California a global leader in green policy-making.

“You don’t have to go very far back to find likely examples of how it would change California,” Logan says, adding that Prop. 32 would remove labor’s voice from nearly all political conversations.

That voice is not always confined to lobbying efforts in the state legislature. Often labor’s support of candidates filling executive posts can be decisive. An obvious example is the 2010 governor’s race. Jerry Brown’s opponent, former eBay CEO and billionaire Meg Whitman, spent more than $144 million of her personal fortune on her own campaign–$178 million in total, nearly five times Brown’s war chest. And yet Brown won, thanks to a massive grassroots effort led by labor. What would California look like had big business had the spending field all to itself in 2010?

Except for her stated adamant opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy, Meg Whitman was largely short on policy specifics during her campaign. In 2009, however, she told the San Diego Union-Tribune that her first act as governor would be to suspend AB 32 — California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, citing its financial impact on California industry.

A landmark environmental law, AB 32 mandates, among its other goals, that California return its emissions output to 1990 levels by 2020–a reduction of 25 percent. The effort to comply with the law has spurred significant attempts to enhance automobile fuel efficiency as well as to source renewable energy from across the state. These efforts have national, even international implications, as technology designed to meet California’s rigorous environmental standards is often marketed and sold around the world.

The global sweep of AB 32 has made it a top target for multinational oil and petrochemical interests. In 2010, Big Oil banded together to launch Proposition 23—a California ballot initiative to nullify AB 32. Among the donors to the pro-Prop. 23 effort were the billionaire Koch brothers—whose Koch Industries subsidiary, Flint Hills Resources, gave $1 million to overturn the law. Their efforts failed by nearly 25 percentage points at the polls.

On September 13 of this year, the Koch brothers, with no apparent sense of irony, donated $4 million to back Prop. 32—a bill that claims to “stop special interests.”

If Prop. 32 were to pass, repealing AB 32 would likely be at the top of the Koch brothers’ — and the rest of the oil/petrochemical industry’s — to-do list.

The mere fact that AB 32 exists at all is a stroke of luck for the state of California. Despite its reputation as the land of environmental progress, California has seen a host of potential landmark bills axe-murdered by big business in the past decade.

In 2006 then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a litany of environmental bills at the behest of business interests, including a law (AB 1012) requiring that 50 percent of the vehicles sold in California run on clean alternative fuels by 2020. A year later, the Governator followed up by vetoing a series of bills (Assembly Bills 35, 888 and 1058) to establish green building standards for state buildings, as well as commercial buildings and residential structures.

But perhaps no environmental reform effort stands to flame out under a Prop. 32 regime as conspicuously as the longstanding effort to clean up California’s filthy, air-polluted ports.

In 2008, SB 974, proposed by state Senator Alan Lowenthal, would have imposed a $30 fee per 20-foot shipping container at the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland. The fees would have added up to $300 million annually, half to be spent on air pollution controls and the other half for infrastructure upgrades to prevent port congestion.

Public health fallout from our dirty, crowded ports costs Californians $19 billion annually. Senate Bill 974 received the direct support of the 85,000-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 721 and made it through the California Assembly—only to be vetoed by Schwarzenegger in 2008 after none other than Sarah Palin lobbied the governor against the bill. She was joined by the California Chamber of Commerce, who called the measure a “job killer” and by a who’s who of cheap Chinese labor-dependent big business–from garment manufacturers like Abercrombie & Fitch, to big box retailers like Walmart. (A new version of the bill—SB 739—eventually passed last year.)

Big business already decides much of California’s environmental policy. If Prop. 32 were to enter the equation, it would only be a matter of years before California’s reputation as a green leader in the global environmental movement would be as torched as the coal in our power plants.

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